A participant in an online editing group of which I am a member has posed a question: “Is self-editing possible? If not, why?”
The short answer is that self-editing is possible, increasingly necessary, and limited.
Let’s start with the possibilities.
Item: You are the person closest to the facts you are writing about, so unless you can command the services of a New Yorker fact checker, it’s up to you to get the names and dates right.
Item: You do not have to be a grammarian, but there are basic elements of grammar and usage—subject-verb agreement, plurals and possessives, treacherous homonyms—that you would be wise to familiarize yourself with.*
Item: You can try to sound like a human being. Read your text aloud. Anything that sounds even slightly off to your ear is something you may want to revise.
Item: You need to step away from the desk. Take a fifteen-minute walk. Brew more coffee. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. When you return to your text, you can try to look at it with fresh eyes. (Horace suggested putting your text in a drawer for nine years, but you’re apt to be on a more abbreviated timetable.)
Item: Make an index—after you have written a draft. Not a highly organized one, but just a notation of the major sections. Is the most important element up front? Are the segments organized in an effective order? Is the chronology clear? Is something important missing?
Item: You are not too proud to use spell-check. It will flag typos and inconsistent spellings of proper nouns. But it is limited and will not alert you to one of those treacherous homonyms.
The reason that you should take on these editing responsibilities, apart from your own drive toward competence, is that the self-editing may be the only significant editing you get. Over the past couple of decades many publications and publishing houses have drastically cut back on editing, and the editors who remain have often been saddled with tasks apart from actual editing.**
There are, of course, still editors at publications, agencies, nonprofits, and corporations, and you may have the good fortune to work with one of them. There are, too, many freelance editors—developmental editors, line editors, copy editors, and proofreaders. If you find a good one and engage their services, pay them what they’re worth.
And finally, the limitations.
When you write, you have an intention in your head, what you mean to say. That intention remaining in your head may distract you from the realization that the text in front of you does not quite say what you meant to say, or that a reader might draw a completely different meaning from it. You are not necessarily the best judge of your own work. You may not be as funny, as smart, or as clear as you think you are.
So do the best you can. That is all that any of us, staring at a blank sheet of paper or a blank screen, can be expected to do.
* There is a great deal of rubbish abroad about grammar and usage. Perhaps you might take a look at The Old Editor Says: Maxims for Writing and Editing and Bad Advice: The Most Unreliable Counsel Available on Grammar, Usage, and Writing.
** This blog involves two kinds of editing, my self-editing and crowdsourced editing by people who find glee in pouncing on an editor’s mistakes.